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Back to the Future?

April 5, 2015

It’s fascinating how many readers have such vivid memories of the local children’s TV programs of their youth. I recall both Uncle Elihu on Channel 10 and Zeebo the Clown with astonishing clarity, and from the responses I received, many of you do, too. People wrote fondly about their local celebs in places as diverse Illinois and New York, so it wasn’t just a Waco phenomenon.

I find myself wondering if we all recall our favorite children’s shows that way because we watched them at a time in our lives when we were most impressionable, or if locally-produced TV that we could actually visit in person had a uniquely powerful impact on us. Have we lost something essential in the homogenization of media?

I asked my children, now in their mid-twenties, what they remember. It’s a small sample, but I’m intrigued by how much their experiences resembled or departed from mine.

My daughter doesn’t remember enjoying many of the shows with live actors. Responsible parents that we were, Lisa and I steered her toward such PBS standards as “Sesame Street,” “Reading Rainbow” and “Thomas the Tank Engine.” She barely recalls those, and evidently never developed any affinity for them.

What Natasha recalls with great fondness are the animated hits of her childhood, especially “Animaniacs,” “Pinky and the Brain,” and “Freakazoid.” Because of Animaniacs she still can name all fifty states in alphabetical order, and all of the presidents in order up to Bill Clinton. She notes that she and her friends become as rapturous talking about the joys of those shows as we Uncle Elihu veterans get when reminiscing about our favorites. So much for my theory about the lost virtues of local programming. Could it be that it wasn’t better in my day, after all?

My son shares somewhat different memories. He watched Mr. Rogers, and felt a certain kinship with him, but nothing like the personal identification I had with Uncle Elihu and Zeebo. He also liked Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain (they WERE terrific shows), Sesame Street, Hey Arnold and Dexter’s Lab, but they were just entertainments for him. While nostalgic for those days, he’s not invested in those memories. So no consensus in my little sample.

Gabe does report something of interest, though. As he got a bit older, he became truly invested in an animated online webcomic, “Homestar Runner,” which had wildly eccentric stories and some interactive features he really related to. At a young age, he was already making the transition from broadcast TV to the internet, where both of my kids are now firmly entrenched.

When I was a student at the University of Denver and a staffer at the campus newspaper, the school’s chancellor, Maurice Mitchell, a lover of journalism and former media executive, told me his theory that new media would always supplant the previous ones because each successive innovation would be more intimate than the last. The large format magazines like “Life” and “Look” took over because the much more portable 35 mm camera allowed for more intimate views of the world. Television killed those magazines because moving pictures were more intimate than still ones. And, as predicted, the internet is now positioned to swamp broadcast TV.

So, here’s my back to the future question: now that the technology lets anyone make inexpensive videos and stream them on any number of platforms, and preschoolers already know how to use tablets and smart phones, will someone think of bringing local children’s shows back?